Leon Bridges’ ascent has been something to behold.
You’d have to go back to the mid-’90s and the Toadies to find another comparable Fort Worth-based artist rocketing so rapidly to mainstream prominence.
There have been other local bands signed to major-label deals in the interim — Green River Ordinance, the Unlikely Candidates and Snow Tha Product spring to mind — but none have flown as far as fast as Bridges.
He has earned near-universal raves from anyone who has seen or heard him across the U.S. and in Europe, and as he prepares to release his Columbia Records debut, Coming Home, on Tuesday, Bridges is kicking off a tour in support of the album Saturday with a pair of sold-out shows at Scat Jazz Lounge.
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His headlining tour, which takes him across the country and includes a stop at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, will conclude with a Nov. 14 show at Dallas’ Majestic Theatre.
Bridges’ sound is a generous mixture of soul, R&B, pop and gospel, anchored by his feather-light vocals and razor-sharp performances. He croons with a delicacy that’s at odds with much of what’s in heavy rotation on the radio.
Indeed, the sensation of hearing Bridges’ music in 2015 is not unlike witnessing the ghost of R&B great Sam Cooke, to whom Bridges is most often compared, returning to cut through the modern clutter.
Bridges’ leap from open mics at local venues like the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge, to performing at the Newport Folk Festival or the Austin City Limits Music Festival, to finding himself in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, Esquire and The New York Times or making the late-night TV rounds (Bridges will be the musical guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday) is enough to make a person dizzy — even if that person is Bridges himself.
“It’s still very surreal, all the things that’ve been happening,” Bridges told me last month, as he drove to another tour stop in New Orleans. “It’s kind of hard to grasp at all. I’m just trying to take it all in.”
But while it may seem as though the 25-year-old Bridges -- who was born in Atlanta and, as noted by D Magazine, moved to Crowley in 1992 with his two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister) -- materialized out of nowhere, that’s not the case. He spent a few formative years cultivating his aesthetic and honing his songwriting chops in clubs and cafes around Fort Worth, in between shifts at Del Frisco’s washing dishes and busing tables.
Three key elements have distinguished Bridges from his contemporaries — his personal style; his simple, direct songs; and his deceptively laid-back stage presence — and the combination of all three is what makes Bridges seem shockingly well-prepared for his moment in the spotlight.
Put another way: If Bridges is at all nervous about being on the verge of breaking out as a major musical artist, you’d never know it.
Let’s take a closer look at those three components of Bridges’ astonishing success to date, and find out what makes this rising star shine so brightly.
The songs that make the sound
In the first review Bridges ever received, he was still performing under the Lost Child moniker.
Born Todd Bridges, Lost Child was a name plucked from his childhood, as he explained to Rolling Stone last month.
“My mom, she used to always tell me whenever I had a haircut or something, ‘Boy, you look like a lost child,’” Bridges told the magazine in May. “Later, I wanted a more professional-sounding name. A lot of people in college would call me Leon, after the actor. He acted in Cool Runnings, The Five Heartbeats and The Temptations. People were saying I looked like him. I felt that ‘Leon’ and ‘Bridges’ went together very well.”
But even so, it was evident he possessed raw talent, as DFW.com contributing writer Steve Watkins noted about a December 2012 performance at the Live Oak.
“Lost Child and [singer Njia Martin] took turns doing their own songs, and there was a spiritual, redemptive quality that put a more contemporary edge on the overall effect of Sunday’s show,” Watkins wrote at the time. “I hope they continue to perform together, and I hope to see more from them with the full band. This could be the beginning of something special.”
Sam Anderson, a member of Quaker City Night Hawks and an early, vocal proponent of Bridges, calls the singer-songwriter’s journey from open-mic nights at Magnolia Motor Lounge to sold-out shows in New York and Los Angeles and talk show appearances “kind of dumbfounding.”
“I was doing Tuesdays up there [at Magnolia Motor Lounge],” Anderson says, “and he came up there a couple weeks in a row, and asked to come up and play. I didn’t really know whether he was good or not. I told him afterward: ‘You didn’t tell me you were really good.’”
There were traces of his church upbringing in the music of Lost Child and the songs he would write under his own name, but he was still far afield from the type of music that would ultimately earn him a major-label recording contract.
“When I first started, I was always determined to do something creative and different,” Bridges says. “It wasn’t like the classic soul connection at that point. Even in the past, I’ve always wanted to explore that, but I didn’t know how to. When I finally got inspired and started listening to more soul music, that’s when I started to see that’s where my home was and that’s what I was meant to do.”
That was two years ago, and there wasn’t necessarily a lightbulb moment, according to Bridges.
Instead, a slow immersion began — and some homework: Bridges freely admits he wasn’t up to speed on classic soul acts.
“I had written the song about my mom, Lisa Sawyer … and a friend asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, and I felt bad because I had never really listened to his music,” Bridges says. “Right after that is when I started digging in and listening to Sam Cooke and the Motown sound and just got inspired to be consistent with that sound.”
If nothing else, Bridges is a frighteningly quick study.
A spin through Coming Home, and you’d think he’d been listening to nothing but Stax sides since he popped out of the womb.
“He’s a very strong writer, I feel like, lyrically,” Anderson says. “Sonically [he may be] in the Sam Cooke style, but lyrically, it’s very much his story. He paints with his own colors — that’s what stands out the most to me.”
There is indeed an eerie sensation of channeling the past throughout the record — shimmering doo-wop vocal harmonies, the rhythm section displaying a crisp looseness and Bridges’ own vocals, a heaven-sent tenor as comfortable crooning as pleading or praying.
When he sings “The world leaves a bitter taste in my mouth/You’re the only one that I want, wanna be around,” as he does on Coming Home’s title track, it’s a polite but firm rebuke to the modern era — a reminder that sometimes, less is more.
The look made for covers
In tandem with his smooth, soulful songs, Bridges has become something of a burgeoning 21st century fashion icon for his embrace of clothing that first turned heads when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.
“It’s very important, because if I was on stage singing this type of music with some skinny jeans and a T-shirt, it wouldn’t have the same feeling,” Bridges told The New York Times in March. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s really cool to commit to the style, and people like to see that, a very consistent look.”
Bridges’ favored attire — high-waisted pants, saddle shoes and dark suits (the male members of his band also wear suits during concerts) — is arguably the most noticeable difference, the one thing truly setting him apart from his mainstream pop contemporaries. (It’s fitting then that Bridges bonded with White Denim’s Austin Jenkins, one of the two producers of Coming Home, over their mutual affection for vintage clothing.)
His fascination with and appreciation of such a throwback style of clothing has also made Bridges a natural for Instagram and other image-driven social media sites.
A cursory search of the Internet turns up nearly as many mentions of Bridges’ personal appearance as his music — he even walked the red carpet at the prestigious and buzzy Met Gala in New York City in May.
“I shop at thrift stores and consignment shops,” Bridges told the Huffington Post last month. “I wear my clothes as is, and maybe get them dry-cleaned whenever possible. I’m always dressed like this. If I’m at the laundromat, I’m wearing a suit. I don’t believe in wearing shorts and a graphic T-shirt, or sandals.”
Leon Bridges is not one for racing around the stage or making overly demonstrative gestures in concert.
In fact, if you were to glance at the stage, it might seem like he doesn’t move at all. But look closer, and you’ll see the onetime dance student drawing you in with economical movements, and a firm sense of physicality informing the mellow music.
Bridges studied dance as a student at Tarrant County College, and employs what he learned during his years there as a way of reinforcing his unstuck-in-time approach.
“He signed up for one of my hip-hop classes,” says Gypsy Crane Ingram, former Tarrant County College dance instructor and owner of Arlington’s Moving Canvas Dance Space. “When I first met Todd, he was super shy, but you could tell he had something really special about him. … He didn’t quite believe in himself enough to let it out.”
“I started diving into ballet and jazz and modern technique and learning choreography,” Bridges says in a statement from Columbia Records. “I thought that’s what I wanted to do.”
There are no pirouettes or soft-shoe routines during a Bridges concert.
Instead, Bridges relies on compact bits of physical business — finger-snapping or striding in place a la Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — to reconcile yesterday and today.
Ingram says Bridges danced with her company for nearly five years, and notes that “the more he danced, the more he got comfortable in his own skin.”
“The success he’s having now — he didn’t set out for that,” Ingram says. “He just wanted to make music and have people enjoy it, and that’s what’s happening now.”
The way he sees it, his public performances are all part of a larger, continuous work in progress, one he has been diligently refining since those first few, tentative shows three years ago.
“It was kind of a slow progression,” Bridges told me last month. “It started out at Stay Wired coffee shop in Fort Worth, playing one or two songs. It went further when the Where House open mic started — that was on an actual stage — [and then I] got my first gig at the Live Oak on a Sunday. I just got more comfortable — going to the open mics really helped me find my voice and get comfortable on stage.”
But however far he travels, Bridges has no immediate plans to abandon Fort Worth, as he told me at South by Southwest in March.
“I’m going to stay in Fort Worth for a long time,” Bridges says, “because the studio is right by my house and Austin Jenkins lives there and he’s not going anywhere. He’s a guy I can lean on for creativity and parts and arranging songs. He’s my go-to.”
That love of Cowtown also extends to his band, which includes several local musicians, like Andrew Skates and Brittni Jessie, as well as his choice for opening acts (up-and-coming singer-songwriter Jake Paleschic was tagged as an opener for Bridges earlier this year).
“It’s cool that people are looking at the music and being like, ‘Wow, I never expected this type of music to come out of Fort Worth, Texas,’” Bridges told me in March. “So I want to shine light on some of my friends that I love and my inspirations that are in Fort Worth and Dallas.”
For their part, local musicians like Sam Anderson feel Bridges is putting his money where his mouth is: “He seems very eager to help everybody else out. When he comes back, he’s at shows, and he’s tweeting out [things like], ‘Go see these guys.’ He’s really good at that. … That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
With each successive appearance, Bridges’ confidence appears to be growing.
The shy, hesitant kid who gigged around town three years ago has transformed himself, through a carefully cultivated personal style and songs evoking the past even as they stream in the present, into an artist on the cusp of becoming a bona fide superstar, albeit one quite cognizant of the journey he’s undertaken.
“This is all new stuff for me,” Bridges says. “It’s a whole different thing from performing around Fort Worth in front of 20 or 30 people to being in front of 500 to 600 people, and learning how to be a good performer.
“It’s all one step at a time, learning and growing.”
This report contains material from Star-Telegram archives.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713
7 & 10 p.m. Saturday
Scat Jazz Lounge, Fort Worth